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The Blame Game

The real problem behind the 2000 election.

George Scialabba

8In December 2000, as Americans debated the Florida vote count, the eminent conservative judge and author Richard Posner pronounced the Florida election “a statistical tie.” No sensible observer could disagree. Like molecular trajectories, vote counts cannot, even in principle, be measured with limitless accuracy.

Since the meaning of a tie is that neither side has won, let us leave Florida aside. In the other forty-nine states Al Gore received half a million more citizens’ votes and twenty-five more Electoral College votes than George W. Bush. That margin would have been considerably larger if not for a third-party candidate, most of whose supporters (according to exit polls) preferred Gore to Bush.

Nonetheless, because of the peculiar character of the American electoral system, George Bush was declared president. Since then, despite assuming office with a lower level of voter support than nearly any other in the nation’s history, the Bush administration has been one of the most partisan and high-handed ever. Its judicial nominations, policy-level appointments, and legislative proposals have been extreme and one-sided; its openness to media scrutiny and citizen participation have been minimal; its public rhetoric has been deceptive and uncivil; its deference to Congress’s war-making power has been grudging. Evidently democracy was not well-served by the presidential election of 2000.

Who’s to blame? Almost unanimously, Democrats and liberals blame the third-party candidate, Ralph Nader. Nader, they say, ought to have recognized that his candidacy might well tilt the election to Bush and that such an outcome would be of far greater consequence than winning federal funds for the Green Party. Nader supporters reply that Gore cost Gore the election, and did so by not sounding more like Nader. Gore’s voter support rose and fell, they point out, with his willingness to take strong populist, egalitarian, environmentalist, and good-government positions.

Both sides have a point. Though second to none in admiration for Nader, I accept the “lesser evil” argument. A Gore administration would have been a routine misfortune: tepid, unimaginative, deferential to corporate and financial elites. The Bush administration has been a catastrophe: destructive of fiscal stability, heedless of civic solidarity, indifferent to environmental health, hostile to workers’ rights, contemptuous of international law, disdainful of world opinion, and (as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has demonstrated week in and week out for the last two years) brazenly and relentlessly dishonest. Nader ought to have foreseen this, acknowledged it, and either withdrawn late in the race or urged supporters in closely contested states to vote for Gore (or to trade their votes with Gore supporters in less closely contested states). On the other hand, Gore lost the election not only because of his robotic centrism, but also through his pusillanimous and unsporting refusal to debate Nader. A direct appeal to Nader voters on lesser-evil grounds might well have won over enough of them to have elected Gore.

What is surprising, though—amazing, in fact—is how few on either side have blamed our electoral system. The American electoral system is an affront to reason. To start at the top: the Electoral College has no function except to frustrate equal political representation, i.e., to prevent each vote cast in presidential elections from counting as much as every other vote. The framers of the Constitution may have envisioned the College as a deliberative body, but it has not deliberated once in 200 years and never will. Actually, the framers were ambivalent about the Electoral College and rejected it several times, finally approving it just before the Convention adjourned. That was a mistake. In no fewer than four presidential elections, the candidate with the greatest number of popular votes was not chosen as president. Overwhelming majorities of voters regularly tell pollsters that the Electoral College should be abolished. Seven hundred proposals to reform or abolish it have been introduced in the House, the most recent of which passed in 1989 with an 83 percent majority. As always, the Senate blocked any action.

Why? Because the Senate itself is a deeply undemocratic institution. According to Article V of the Constitution, “no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” That is, each state, regardless of population, was to have two senators. As a result, two centuries later, half the U.S. population sends eighteen senators to Washington, while the other half sends eighty-two. Twenty senators represent 54 percent of the population; another twenty represent less than 3 percent. California gets two senators; the twenty least populous states, which combined have roughly the same number of people as California, get forty senators. Senators elected by 11 percent of the population can kill proposed legislation with a filibuster; senators elected by as little as 5 percent of the population can block a constitutional amendment.

Besides these constitutional absurdities, there is the historical absurdity of the two-party duopoly. As Michael Lind has written, “Because of our peculiar electoral law, the American government is divided between two parties. The American people are not.” Nine out of ten incumbents who seek reelection to the House of Representatives win. And yet, because of low voter turnout and our “winner-take-all” electoral rules, only about a quarter of Americans are represented in Congress by someone they actually voted for.

Two-party dominance allows disproportionate influence to swing voters, single-issue constituencies, and campaign contributors; it promotes negative, contentless campaigns; it rewards grossly inequitable redistricting schemes; and it penalizes those who disagree with both parties but fear to “waste” their votes (which is why Nader probably lost many more voters to Gore than Gore lost to Nader). And then there is behind-the-scenes hardball. The historian Walter Karp put it colorfully: “Challenge a local party syndicate in a mere state legislative district and you will find your ballot petitions falsely voided, your district lines redrawn, your votes miscounted, your supporters bribed, threatened, or beaten—not in some benighted backwoods but in a middle-class neighborhood in New York City in this very year of grace [1979].” Those who criticize Nader for not running in the Democratic primaries underestimate the extent to which party regulars and Gore operatives probably stood ready to sabotage his—or any other insurgent’s—candidacy.

What should we the people do about all this? We should do what nearly every other established democracy has done: change our “first-past-the-post, winner-take-all” system to proportional representation (PR). Under our current system, a party that gained a one-vote plurality in every electoral district would win 100 percent of the seats in the legislature. Even if the two major parties received all votes cast, this would leave 49.999 percent of voters unrepresented—hardly fair. Or a party could win half-plus-one of the electoral districts by one vote each, receive no votes whatever in all the other districts, and still control the legislature. This would leave a huge majority of voters unrepresented—even less fair. These precise results are not at all likely, of course; but some version of them, with some, perhaps significant, overrepresentation and underrepresentation, is quite likely. (The Electoral College and the Senate are guaranteed to produce unequal representation—that’s what they were designed to do.)

In a proportional system, the number of seats each party gets corresponds to the percentage of votes it receives (as long as it reaches a specified minimum, e.g., 5 percent). There are several varieties of PR, including some that allow for geographical representation (the sole basis of the current U.S. system) and others more adapted to non-partisan elections like city councils. But in any form PR is a ticket of admission for small parties and new candidates; it liberates them from the role of “spoilers;” and it spells an end to the stifling dominance of the two major parties.

Defenders of the two-party system argue that multi-party PR societies are prone to gridlock, citing Italy and Israel. But it isn’t so. Other PR societies, like Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and the Netherlands, are much more efficient than the United States at enacting policy. Besides, are winner-take-all rules discredited by the fact that imperfect democracies like Algeria, Pakistan, and India have adopted them?

America is, as we all know, the greatest country that ever was. But might not the rest of the world be right about something? According to the Center for Voting and Democracy (an invaluable resource for voting reform; see www.fairvote.org): “Currently there are 41 well-established democracies with at least two million inhabitants and high ratings from the human rights organization Freedom House, and of these 41 nations only two—the United States and Canada—do not use a form of proportional or semi-proportional voting systems to elect one of their national legislatures.” (How Canada can be enlightened enough to have a single-payer health care system and at the same time benighted enough to have a winner-take-all electoral system is something of a puzzle.) And according to Arend Lijphart (past president of the American Political Science Association) and other researchers, PR democracies generally outperform winner-take-all democracies on such measures as voter satisfaction, accountability, and macroeconomic management.

The office of the presidency being (for better or worse) indivisible, the president cannot be elected by PR. But there is another simple reform that would enhance equal representation: instant-runoff voting (IRV). Even if the Electoral College were abolished, the winner of a three-way race for the presidency might very well not be the choice of a majority of voters. To take another hypothetical case: if candidates A and B each receive 33 percent of the vote while C receives 34 percent, then even if the second choice of all A’s voters is B and vice versa, C will nevertheless become president. Once again, this particular example is unlikely, though spoilers and split votes are hardly uncommon. If, however, voters are allowed to rank the candidates in order of preference, it is a simple matter for modern voting machines to calculate which candidate has the most popular support. Two years ago this system would have prevented many lame jokes, not to mention awarding the presidency to a man whom the majority of voters did not want to have it.

Do PR and IRV sound impractical, even utopian? Actually, there are flickers of progress: cumulative voting systems in Amarillo, Texas, and Peoria, Illinois; an instant-runoff ballot measure in San Francisco; IRV legislation in Vermont; and good words from maverick political figures like John McCain and Howard Dean. Not a tidal wave, but a steady trickle.

As a further antidote to skepticism, a little historical perspective may be useful. Many practices that now seem patently indefensible—the divine right of kings, the union of Church and State, racial segregation, the subordination of women, child labor—once seemed perfectly natural to most people, even if to others it was plain that they could not survive indefinitely. Our electoral system is just such a dinosaur. It has nothing going for it except the inertia of the many and the interests of a few (i.e., those who own the Democratic and Republican parties). Our descendants will wonder what we were thinking of to let it go unreformed for so long.

One thing is certain: if proportional representation, instant-runoff voting, and kindred reforms had been in place in 2000, not only the voters but all three leading presidential candidates as well would be better off today. George Bush could have played golf all winter and sailed his father’s boat all summer. Ralph Nader would have successfully launched the Green Party into national politics. And Al Gore would be in the White House. <

George Scialabba writes about books in Boston Review, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere.

Originally published in the April/May 2003 issue of Boston Review



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